Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I have resisted my penchant for All Things Morbid for some time, but couldn’t manage to force myself not to read Caitlin Doughty‘s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.  It seemed fitting literary romp for the gal whose Make-A-Wish was to go to Salem, Massachusetts for Halloween. In fact, one of my favorite books of all time is Mary Roach’s Stiff.

Doughty’s book began wonderfully – full of wit, and eyes-wide-open. We learn why she chose mortuary work, and get to learn fun facts and figures about the funeral industry. Some subjects, like stillborn infants, are written about with grace and intrigue, which I can respect as an incredibly difficult juxtaposition to manage, let alone pull off with Doughty’s finesse.

Yet, my beef is in book’s perception of human dignity, not significantly discussed until the end of the book. Part reference book and part memoir, the reader learns about how certain bodies caused the author to reflect on her own life, love, and mortality. Discussing a particularly poignant exchange, Doughty remembers a “wheelchair-bound” widow that she believes “should have been the first to go.” In addition to these stereotypical conclusions, she also infantilizes the widow; after receiving his wife’s cremains, the widow “just thanked me in his thin voice, and cradled the brown box in his lap like a child.” Why should someone that uses a wheelchair die before his able-bodied wife? Why is he any less vital than any other grieving spouse?

It’s not that Doughty has ill-intentions toward the disabled widow; in fact, when he is brought to the crematory not long after, Doughty weeps for the loss of love – deep, beautiful love – that he and his former wife had. Their love is something that Doughty appears to envy. Why not, then, respect other aspects of his life?

It wasn’t until reading this book that I began to realize the deep roots of ableism in American society. I had always written the time off as liberal mumbo jumbo. But when the author began to talk about dignity, linking it with death, I grew alarmed. Doughty even references a piece by Atul Gawande (who also writes beautifully about mortality), and questions whether grandma and grandpa should be enabled to try and cheat death through medical intervention. Why not, then, the poor widow in a wheelchair?

Indeed, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes got me thinking. Just probably not in the way the author intended.

Review: Smarter Faster Better

I recently decided to take a break from heavier academic reading and indulge in one of my favorite genres: pop science. The bright orange cover of Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business caught my eye on the iBooks shelf, ironically destroying my own productivity as its lessons drew me in.

Duhigg devotes one chapter to each piece of the productivity puzzle, concluding with an appendix of quick tips for applying these lessons to one’s life day-to-day routine.  At first glance, the keys to productivity – motivation, teamwork, goal-setting, the management of others, decision-making, innovation, and data absorption – may appear obvious and overbroad. After all, how does one force creativity out of themselves? Well, Duhigg tells you how in Chapter 7, using Disney’s Frozen and the Broadway hit West Side Story to explain the innovative process.

My favorite part of the book was the chapter on goals, in which Duhigg cleverly melds anecdotes about the Yom Kippur War and General Electric to describe a phenomenon known as “cognitive closure.” For years, ex-love interests have complained about my need to always label relationships and know exactly where I stand within them. Of course,  this penchant for decisiveness carries over into other aspects of my life, pulling me away from the indecisive and willy-nilly. Finally, I’m able to put a label on my certain brand of neurosis: cognitive closure. Duhigg explains that approximately 20% of the population similarly craves finality  and conclusion. While this characteristic is helpful in many situations, it can also be detrimental when one refuses to consider other possibilities or change their mind in the face of impending alternate truths.

Less interesting was the chapter on data absorption, which uses the example of inter-city Cincinnati schools to show that hands-on data manipulation better enables people to understand the data available. While the chapter’s conclusions are doubtlessly sound,  they are also incredibly intuitive. This created a bit of an anticlimactic ending.

Nevertheless, anyone with a few hours to kill will be entertained by Duhigg’s latest book – and perhaps have the necessary toolkit moving forward to avoid wasted, motivation-less chunks of time.